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Water, water everywhere on the Coast

Outdoor rec businesses on post-Katrina recovery road

There is water all around on the Coast from the cool water lapping sand bars on scenic Wolf River to the clear blue-green surf on the Gulf of Mexico side of the barrier islands. And this summer there are new businesses offering people a way to enjoy the best the Coast has to offer in the way of water recreation.

One new operation taking advantage of the region’s abundant recreational resources is Cat Island Adventures (www.mscatisland.com). Owners Diane and Keith Fulton offer small, intimate excursions to the westernmost barrier island on board a 47-passenger pontoon boat.

“We are getting a fabulous response especially from the volunteer groups and other people who come to the Coast and have never been to Cat Island before,” Diane Fulton said. “A lot of people haven’t been there because Cat Island is not as accessible. You can beach comb, swim, fish or camp on a seven-mile wide island. A lot of fishermen go out on the early trip and come back late in the day.”

Cat Islands used to be completely private, but part has been purchased to be included in the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Visitors enjoy the island that has diverse vegetation and wildlife.

“We go to the southernmost point of island, and land at Smuggler’s Cove right on the beach,” Fulton said. “Visitors really like to go there. Our boat is a small craft. It is more intimate and the crew gets to talk to people and gets to know them. The boat itself is a tranquil experience. You can actually touch the water sitting in your chair. Come enjoy and experience it. It is just a wonderful island.”

Another new business on the Coast is Eco-Tours of South Mississippi offered by owner-operator Kathy Wilkinson (www.ecotoursofsouthmississippi.com).

“We have nature tours on the Pascagoula River including the marsh and swamp,” Wilkinson said. “We have a two-hour boat tour that is our most popular tour. It is a good look at ecosystems in the estuary and up in the swamp. There are a lot of different kinds of plants, birds and all kinds of other wildlife.”

Eco-Tours is a fairly new business, and hasn’t yet conducted a lot of marketing. But Wilkinson has been pleased with the initial response.

“I’m steady, but not as busy as I would like to be,” she said. “The Internet seems to be my best presence. Most of the guests have been from out of town. We do offer overnight adventures up in the swamp. Visitors are absolutely amazed by the area. In my opinion, the Pascagoula River swamp is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. There are so many places to go and different things to see, and it changes from day to day. One day there are irises blooming everywhere, and the next day they are all gone but something else is in their place. It is just very dynamic.”

Not back, yet

One of the longest running tourism based businesses on the Coast, the Ship Island Ferry, is still seeing large declines since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The ferry carried 64,000 visitors in 2005. In 2006 post-Katrina, those numbers were down to less than 19,000. This year rider ship is better on the weekends, but is still slow during the week.

“That tells me the tourists aren’t back yet,” said Louis Skrmetta, captain of the Ship Island Ferry. “We have lost our Midwest tourists, people from places like Chicago and Arkansas. Those are the folks we depended on for our business. Fifty percent of our business is family, and they have lost the places they used to stay, those independent hotels along Highway 90.

“We lost not just hotels but food service like Landry’s, the White Cap and Olive Garden. There is a big void there and anyone can see it if you drive down Highway 90 from state line to state line. Nothing is happening. And when Olive Garden is not coming back in Gulfport, which was a gold mine, that is scary. We need these independent hotels and restaurants to come back to get the family tourists back here.”

Skrmetta said the ferry will do better this year than last. With no major hurricanes, they expect to see a 40% increases in business over 2006.

“We think it will be two or three years before we are back to pre-Katrina numbers,” he said. “We still have our three boats, and expenses to own and maintain three boats are pretty high. Our peak season is mid-June to mid-August so the next few weeks will tell. School starting in early August really hurts us. Pensacola went through this and forced schools to start no sooner than August 21. They saw how they needed the family tourist business. That is a whole month that you lose. I wish we could get together with school boards to change this. It is hot, and kids don’t want to go back. Texas has gone back to starting after Labor Day. It makes sense. That would really help us if we could get back the month of August.”

It would also help if the National Park Service would replace visitor amenities on Ship Island. Pavilions providing shade and permanent restroom and shower facilities have yet to be reconstructed. There are beach umbrellas and chairs for rent, but the pavilions are helpful shelter when a squall hits.

“You can get freshwater showers out there, but we have yet to get a new beach facility and restrooms back,” Skrmetta said. “We are waiting anxiously for those. We are asking people to let the park service know they really want the facilities back like before the storm, no more or no less.”

This has been an excellent year for water quality on the island.

“Southeastern breezes are bringing in the clear green water from the Gulf,” he said. “The beaches are beautiful out there right now. The sea oats are back, and the dunes have recovered somewhat. It has been nice, clear water this year.”

‘Best swimming
on the Gulf Coast’

The Wolf River north of Pass Christian is another popular place for outdoor recreation.

“The Wolf River is Mississippi’s first Wild and Scenic River,” said Joe Feil, owner of Wolf River Canoes, www.wolfrivercanoes.com. “It is the best swimming on the Gulf Coast. There is no question about it. Most people enjoy some activity with the water whether water skiing or swimming or hanging out next to it. Canoeing is a very relaxing activity. The scenery is magnificent.”

Trips are particularly popular with churches, scout groups, businesses and volunteer groups doing Katrina recovery. It is also nice for people who want to get out of their FEMA trailers for a day.

“People busy with Katrina recovery are delighted to go spend a day on the river,” Feil said. “It is nice for everybody. Virtually everybody can enjoy a day, an afternoon or a few hours on the river. I have been doing it a long time and still enjoy it. Every day I drink a cup of coffee and then take a second cup of coffee down to the river and jump in.”

Similar trips are available from Black Creek Canoe Rental (www.blackcreekcanoe.com), which is located on Old U.S. 49 West in Brooklyn

“We are having a good year,” said Brandon Pearce, owner. “It is something the family can get out and do. You don’t have to have a lot of experience to float our river. It isn’t dangerous. It isn’t white water or anything like that. It is good family fun.”

Another business offering water experience is McCoy’s River and Marsh Tours, www.rivercritters.com, in Moss Point.

“People just want to come and get out into nature,” said co-owner Bennie McCoy. “In our tours, they get to see a bit of the marsh and then some of the swamp. They get to see a little bit of all of it.”

Business was slow after Katrina, but has started to pick back up. McCoy said he now even gets quite a few visitors in the winter months. The trips are particular popular with birders.

The Gulf Islands Waterpark (www.gulfislandswaterpark.com) located northwest of the interchange of Highway 49 and Interstate 10 in Gulfport is another popular spot for cooling off this summer. The attraction features water slides, a wave pool and many other ways to cool off and have fun. During the summer the water park is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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